Shiny Shelf

Doctor Who: The Girl in the Fireplace

By Mark Clapham on 07 May 2006

Steven Moffat’s ‘The Empty Child’ was one of the highlights of last year’s series of ‘Doctor Who’: funny, scary, romantic and ingenious. With ‘The Girl in the Fireplace’, Moffat has done it again – this is as good as ‘Doctor Who’ gets.

Any drama with access to science fantasy story devices such as time travel or time manipulation will, sooner or later, do the ‘mayfly’ story, where a whole lifetime is experienced in compressed form, a story device that has endless potential for poignancy.

Moffat’s spin on this is more interesting than, say, any of those ‘Star Trek’ episodes where someone is forced to live a lifetime in an afternoon by the alien brain police or a wibbly cosmic sphere. Instead, the Doctor wanders in and out of the full life of a real person, French notable Madame de Pompadour, from childhood onwards, each time protecting her from the clockwork robots stalking her down her lifetime. For the Doctor, walking through a series of time portals, events unfold in less than a day. For Madame de Pompadour, years pass between their every meeting, and the Doctor becomes a pivotal figure in her life, those meetings all too brief.

The sheer cleverness of Moffat’s script is that this time-split relationship between the Doctor and Madame de Pompadour simultaneously works on two levels, for different audiences. On one hand it’s about something very real and universal and relatable, that romantic opportunity can be tragically fleeting, and there’s no going back to try again once that time has gone. On the other hand, it’s about something very unreal, the Doctor’s existence as an almost immortal being outside time and how he can only ever really dip into normal, meaningful existence.

It’s in balancing the real and the absurd that Moffat demonstrates his grasp on the essential balance of disparate elements that makes for good ‘Doctor Who’. With the Doctor reeling between the 18th and 51st centuries via a number of magic doors, the episode seems to be doing a courtly dance appropriate for Versailles, elegantly weaving between history and SF, scares and jokes, action and romance. Like the continuous sets which allow the characters to step between one era and another, the story seamlessly integrates a wealth of ideas and genres. Just when you think it can’t get more crazily inventive, the Doctor finds a horse wandering the corridors of a spaceship.

It’s no surprise that Moffat, a talented writer and long-time ‘Who’ fan, understands what makes good ‘Doctor Who’. What is surprising is that he takes Russell T Davies’ vision for ‘Who’ as an essentially optimistic series further than RTD does in his own scripts. As with ‘The Empty Child’ there are no real villains in ‘The Girl in the Fireplace’, only mistakes that if left unchecked will lead to tragic consequences. While RTD takes the more traditional route of having the Doctor fight a universe of alien evil, Moffat pits the Doctor against the results of something more everyday: fallibility. His Doctor doesn’t destroy, he’s a healer (of sorts), one who solves problems and repairs damage where he finds it.

Euros Lyn’s direction handles a number of competing demands very well, including a couple of brilliant set pieces. Costume design is excellent, with the robots quite beautiful creations, and the effects do well with a challenging script. On the casting side, Sophia Myles takes on the major guest role of Madame de Pompadour, and is convincing as a woman enchanting enough to charm the Doctor. One passionate kiss aside, theirs is a graceful and civilised romance, and all the more affecting for it.

For the first time since ‘The Christmas Invasion’ David Tennant’s Doctor is front-and-centre, with Rose and Mickey pushed to the sidelines for a bit, and he excels in the limelight. Tennant’s Doctor is enthusiastic and expressive when running around adventuring, reticent and downright defensive whenever anyone tries to pin him down. Madame de Pompadour manages to bring out deeper feelings in the Doctor, feelings which can never be fully expressed as their time together is too brief. Tennant brilliantly plays the Doctor’s emotional journey throughout the episode, from curiosity to joy to eventual loss.

‘The Girl in the Fireplace’ is everything you could want from a ‘Doctor Who’ story, a fantastic, absurdist, romantic, and dramatic adventure in both time and space.

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By Mark Clapham

Mark Clapham is a Devon-based writer and editor. You can find out more about him at the egotistically named

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